Writing: Old-fashioned?

In an article titled “An Old-School Notion: Writing Required,” Dan Berrett makes an argument for the value of writing in education.  Berrett sets up his article by stating what cannot be avoided hearing these days: too many students aren’t learning enough and, consequently, recent graduates are ill prepared for the workplace.  Berrett suggests that colleges must insist on that “old-fashioned” requirement of writing to increase and improve levels of learning.  He argues that to regard writing as an old-school method, because it runs against the grain of “sexy new ideas” about how to change higher education, would be a tragic mistake.

Berrett vouches for writing because it works exceedingly well as “both a way to assess learning and a means of deepening that learning,” according to experts.  He quotes Julie A. Reynolds, associate director of undergraduate studies at Duke University, on writing’s unique ability to “make thinking visible,” showing how well students grasp the subject matter in ways that other evaluating methods, such as a multiple-choice, short-answer test, or even a discussion section, cannot.

Opposition to writing as a strategy/evaluator to increase/assess comprehension, however, comes easily as faculty members may not see writing as their expertise, as concerns exist that time spent on writing assignments will take away time needed for covering material, and with the realization that assigning and evaluating writing are labor-intensive tasks that become more and more time consuming as class sizes increase.

For a great intro to the debate on this issue, with commentary on both sides of the argument, can be found at the end of the article here, and the following article explores some of the perceived points for opposition as well.

In “Why We Can’t Farm Out the Teaching of Writing,” Rachel Toor explores the importance of writing as well as the subsequent responsibility of the teacher.  She starts her article with an email passage sent to her by an assistant professor in which they asked her for suggestions of software packages.  The assistant professor was looking for software that could “more critically assess formal writing than the grammar kernel in Microsoft Office,” because they were disappointed in their students’ writing yet didn’t really have the time to fully evaluate writing assignments. Toor found the question to be strange and telling of a larger problem: “Isn’t it a faculty member’s responsibility to critically assess students’ writing?”

Toor continues on with a story about a political scientist she met who told her that he never commented on his students’ writing because he didn’t feel that he had the expertise to do so.  She combats that writing is cross-disciplinary, and that any attitude of teachers to the contrary is wrong.

Toor finds that one of the problems lies within everyone thinking whoever went before him or her was responsible for the job of teaching writing, i.e. college professors believing it was learned in high school, and graduate professors believing it was learned in undergradute.  Toor then finds another mistake in merely correcting student papers with a concern for mechanical errors rather than providing a beneficial, “holistic evaluation of the thinking and the writing.”

Toor leaves the reader with questions: “If professors don’t tell students that the writing matters, who will? If professors don’t know what good writing looks like, who does?”  She argues that every teacher’s job is reading and writing, and anyone who disagrees is “shirking an important aspect of his job.”

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